The Durrells: The true story of Lawrence’s friendship with his literary hero Henry Miller

Did Lawrence Durrell and his mother really hang out with Henry Miller and his friends in London?

Durrells - Trevor White as Henry Miller

There’s a real change of scenery for Louisa and Lawrence Durrell in Sunday’s episode. In episode 3 of series 2, mother and son sail to England in the company of Great Aunt Hermione’s coffin. Mrs Durrell is preoccupied with the funeral, while Larry’s main concern is a visit to his bohemian literary friends in London.

Advertisement

ITV’s The Durrells is based on Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, My Family and Other Animals, but a certain amount of dramatic licence has been exercised. So: did this storyline really happen?

The short answer is: “No”.

But the long answer is that there is some truth to the episode, because Larry was friends with Henry Miller and his literary crowd, and the Durrells did sporadically return from Corfu to England.

Was Lawrence Durrell really friends with Henry Miller?

Larry in The Durrells

Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller had an intense literary friendship. Enormous admirers of each other, they wrote countless letters with big ideas about Art and Life and Literature and exchanged manuscripts and watercolours and ideas.

Miller (played by Trevor White) was an innovative and controversial American author who was known for breaking with existing literary forms – in fact, his books were considered so racy that several were banned in the United States. In August 1935, 23-year-old Larry read his scandalous novel Tropic of Cancer and was so impressed that he sent Miller a fan letter.

“Dear Mr Miller: I have just read ‘Tropic of Cancer’ again and feel I’d like to write you a line about it,” he wrote. ” It strikes me as being the only really man-size piece of work which this century can really boast of. It’s a howling triumph from the word go.”

Henry Miller
The author Henry Miller (Getty)

Miller, then 44 years old and living in Paris, responded enthusiastically and without much modesty: “I particularly prize your letter because it’s the kind of letter I would have written myself had I not been the author of the book.”

It was the beginning of a lifetime of correspondence. Miller encouraged his young friend in his writing, raving about the manuscript for Larry’s novel The Black Book.

The first time they met was in 1937, when Larry travelled to Paris to stay with Miller and fellow writer Anaïs Nin in Paris. They spent a week talking non-stop, and the young author quickly became associated with their “decadent” literary world. (His first wife, Nancy, came with him but was pretty much confined to silence. She doesn’t appear in The Durrells at all.)

The Durrells - Ruby
Lawrence in The Durrells, with love interest Ruby in London (ITV)

Shortly afterwards, Larry extended an invite to Corfu, writing in 1938: ”It’s so quiet today, and the sea so blue, and now the garden wall is built… I can give you a deep cool room with two windows over the sea; bright rugs on the floor; a desk and some books… We could sail and bathe in the mornings; have a fine sunny lunch with wine; then a long afternoon siesta; bathe before tea and then four hours’ work in a slow rich evening.”

Unsurprisingly after receiving such an evocative description, Miller took him up on the offer. He was very taken with Corfu and later wrote about the experience in his critically-acclaimed The Colossus of Maroussi.

On the outbreak of war in Europe, Miller returned to America, while Larry stayed close to the action, travelling through Greece and Egypt and Yugoslavia. With the Atlantic between them, they didn’t see each other for the next 20 years, but they continued to exchange letters until Miller’s death in 1980.

Did the Durrells visit England?

The Durrells

In the episode we see Louisa and Larry travel to England while the rest of the kids stay in Corfu. This specific storyline never happened, but the Durrells certainly did go back to England from time to time.

In fact, My Family and Other Animals – the first in the Corfu Trilogy – ends with the whole family piling onto a boat alongside Gerry’s collection of dogs, magpies and tortoises for a month’s stay in England, after which Gerry is threatened with boarding school.

Gerry writes: “Mother was adamant. We were to return to England and spend a month or so there consolidating our position (which meant arguing with the bank) and then we would decide where I was to continue my studies. In order to quell the angry mutterings of rebellion in the family she told us that we would look upon it merely as a holiday, a pleasant trip. We should soon be back in Corfu.”

Another of the books includes a trip to London to visit Margo, who has been sent back to the UK for medical treatment.

So: yes, various members of the family did travel to England during their time living in Corfu.

Advertisement

The Durrells continues on Sundays at 8pm on ITV